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Taking its cue from Raymond Federman’s programmatically titled essay “The Last Stand of Literature,” the chapter briefly reviews the critical debate about the increasing convergence of literary and television culture. Rather than seeing the influx of TV aesthetics into American literature as causing a demise of literary culture, the chapter argues that the texts by Coover, Wallace, and DeLillo imaginatively reframe TV culture and turn the reflection on visual media into a source of literary innovation. They acknowledge TV as a central force in postmodern culture, rework televisual immediacy effects, and describe TV images and their reception, but they do so in self-reflexive narratives that probe the contributions literature can make to a culture shaped by TV and the commodification of art and experience.
Whitman adopted photography as a model for literary practice. By emulating the immediacy effects and truth claims of photography, Whitman developed an innovative style that aimed to endow his poems with the same qualities he valued in the new medium—particularly directness, accuracy, naturalness, and inclusiveness of representation—and the cumulative experience of these qualities by the beholder as a sense of authenticity, media transparency, and immediate encounter. Comparing the representational powers of photography and literature helped Whitman to gauge the spiritual, cultural, and political function of literature. The chapter presents Whitman’s turn towards immediacy as part of his attempt to renew and democratize American poetry. It argues that Whitman’s engagement with photography led him to create a poetic style that allowed him to address the particulars of time and place, to take the details of everyday life as his subject matter, and to invest them with an egalitarian ethos by staging the dynamics of literary communication as a model for democratic social interaction. In Whitman’s work, the appeal to immediacy thus gains a decidedly political momentum.
Commenting on the findings of the previous two chapters on Emerson’s and Whitman’s reflections on photographic immediacy, this chapter stresses the social, political, and media cultural context of their work. It argues that Emerson’s and Whitman’s romantic quest for immediacy was not an escapist endeavor that aimed to keep literature aloof from larger social and technological transformations. Instead, both writers creatively responded to the reshaping of American society under the pressures of budding industrialization and halting democratization processes by developing a poetics that sought to connect literary and social practices. Emerson’s and Whitman’s poetics of immediacy ground literary communication in the lived experience of writers and readers, make literature relevant to the concerns of everyday life (including social and sexual relations, spirituality, work, and politics), and seek to strengthen their readers’ active participation in the world.
The conclusion comments on the cultural functions that experiences of immediacy possess and outlines the productive contributions that the academic study of literary immediacy can make to literary and cultural studies, especially if it approaches literature from a comparative media perspective. The chapter summarizes that American Literature and Immediacy explores literary narratives of new media encounter, and the stylistic and thematic innovations they inspired, to show that American literary culture absorbs media cultural changes as it participates in the pervasive cultural quest for increased immediacy. The book describes how American writers compared the immediacy effects of photography, film, and television to literature’s representational possibilities to re-envision the imaginative and critical role that literary practice could play in a culture increasingly shaped by mass media. The conclusion also discusses the use of voice recognition software by the novelist Richard Powers and cites his compositional strategy as an example of how contemporary writers continue to successfully appropriate new media technologies in search of immediacy, full expression, and literary innovation.
The chapter’s first part describes the interrelated but also contrary development of literature and film in the early twentieth century. It places modernist experiments with literary form in relation to the new representational and narrative strategies of early film. The second part explains in depth which new forms of immediacy the movies offered and how important these immediacy effects were for the cultural impact and popularity of early film, especially the “cinema of attractions.” The chapter also discusses the popular perception of film as a particularly modern medium. It argues that the oscillation between self-reflexivity and immediacy was central to the cultural work performed by early cinema because it allowed early film to train viewers in new forms of attention required by the accelerated pace, fragmentation, and informational density of modern life, while also providing compensatory relief and entertainment. Provoking media awareness as well as experiences of immersion, the early cinema reminded its viewers that their perception of the world was mediated, while the thrill of its immediacy effects offered them moments of respite from such self-reflexive considerations.
The chapter analyzes how Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II critically refracts TV’s immediacy effects to explore the cultural function that literature performs within the increasingly commodified market dynamics of mass media communication. The chapter argues that DeLillo accomplishes a paradoxical feat: he tells the story of a retrograde writer who loses his life in a futile attempt to resist the commercialization of his work; yet DeLillo suffuses this allegorical tale about the death of an author in the age of mass media and consumer culture with detailed ekphrastic descriptions of TV news footage, photographs, and pop art that ultimately confirm the capacity of literature to respond in innovative ways to the predominance of visual media, the misapprehension of televisual images as real, and the increasing commodification of literature and art. Published as American culture was turning digital, the novel provides an apt terminus for my study of how American writers reworked the immediacy effects of analog new visual media to renew literary culture.
The chapter argues that John Dos Passos in his novel Manhattan Transferappropriates cinematic immediacy effects and documentary aesthetics for the sake of literary innovation and cultural intervention. His formal innovations—the narrative’s montage structure, shifting focalization, and sampling of mass media item—allow the novel to convey the complexity of modern city life while opening up a critical perspective on mass media discourse and urban consumer culture. The chief strategy Dos Passos uses to critically refract popular mass culture is the creation and subsequent dissolution of immediacy effects that encourage the readers to grapple self-reflexively with the text, their reading strategies, and the represented social realities. The novel’s documentary style creates an urban world that seems recorded rather than imagined. Yet the novel continually disrupts this impression of immediacy: its disjunctive structure and surprising narrative shifts confront the readers with their interpretive routines and push them to develop new ways of reading that enable them to cope with both the novel’s experimental form and the depicted cultural practices.
The chapter defines TV’s immediacy effects. Television started out as a live medium. Although shows were soon pre-produced and recorded, an aesthetic of liveness, retained by shooting sitcoms and talk shows in front of studio audiences, has remained integral to TV culture. It sets TV apart from earlier visual media, particularly film, and is pivotal for the medium’s reality effects. Although “television” means to “see at a distance,” the initial promise of TV was that it would erase the distance between the viewers and the depicted events. Because event, transmission, and reception occur simultaneously during a live broadcast, it possesses not only temporal immediacy but also evokes a sense of spatial proximity and actuality. TV live coverage seems to bring the world home or to transport the viewers to the site of action. By presenting on- and off-screen worlds as directly connected, live TV blurs the boundary between public and private spheres, between fiction and fact, and creates the impression that the viewers participate in the broadcasted events. Since American TV is a commercial medium, the cultural dominance of TV results in a pervasive commodification of experience.
The chapter shows that Emerson and Whitman refined their poetics by probing the truth claims and reality effects of photography. It expands our understanding of American romantic literature by connecting the romantic concern with intuition, firsthand experience, and organic expression to the emergence of photography. Claims to authenticity and immediacy were central to the reform efforts of the transcendentalists because they enabled them to resist social conventions, to counter the commercialization of literary culture, and to renew literature’s democratic ethos. The chapter identifies photographic discourse as an important testing ground for this orientation. Emerson repeatedly reflected on photography to think through the relations between knowledge and mediation and to define the cultural role of literature. At first, he held that the camera’s capacity to record optical reality without distortion realized his ideal of intuitive insight and original expression. His attitude towards photography grew more ambivalent, however, as his commitment to a poetics of process deepened. Seeking to represent a world in flux, Emerson grew wary of photography’s stabilized records of reality.
Stein used film as a model to explain the avant-garde poetics of her literary portraits to her perplexed readers. The chapter examines two early portraits, “Picasso” and “Orta,” in the context of chronophotography and early film. It also considers Stein’s theoretical reflections on her insistent style, particularly “Portraits and Repetition” and “How Writing Is Written.” Stein’s early portraits are in orientation temporal and performative (like film) rather than visual and static (like photography). They advance through sequences of similar, serially varied sentences that create the impression of an ongoing present. Stein’s cinematic form of serial variation locates meaning in the movement of its sentence permutations rather than in its mimetic capacities. Her serial sentences keep readers focused on the workings of language and the text’s temporal unfolding and thus manage to turn an awareness of representational processes into a tool to center our attention on the always elusive present moment. Stein’s use of self-reflexivity to create a sense of temporal and perceptual immediacy radicalizes the cinematic strategy of embedding immediacy effects in overtly self-referential texts.
Discussing works by Robert Coover and David Foster Wallace, this chapter argues that the critical remediation of TV’s aesthetics of immediacy provided an innovative impetus for the experimental postmodernist fiction of the 1960s and 70s and the literary fiction of the 1980s and 90s. Among the first generation of writers to address TV, Coover parodies in his short story “The Babysitter” how TV conflates the fictive and the real by eroding the boundaries between on- and off-screen worlds. The story plays with narrative levels to debunk TV’s logic of spectacle and consumption. Twenty years later, Wallace likewise explores how TV alters our sense of the real. Yet he distances himself from the ironical stance he finds characteristic of both his postmodernist precursors and of TV. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram” and short stories like “Little Expressionless Animals,” he advocates a return to a self-reflexive poetics of sincerity. Although their poetics and historical moment differ, both Coover and Wallace rework televisual immediacy effects to challenge TV’s promise of direct participation and connection and to expand the representational reach and cultural pertinence of literature.
The introduction argues that American literature participates in American culture’s ongoing quest for immediacy, that the effort to generate ever-new reality effects has sparked the innovation of new literary techniques and forms, and that a common strategy American writers have used since the nineteenth century to create texts of greater immediacy has been to study and rework the reality effects of photography, film, and television. The chapter defines immediacy as a culturally and historically situated effect that indicates how the relation between reality and representation as well as between knowledge and mediation is construed in a given culture. In media history, claims to immediacy play a central role in the competition and alignment between media. The introduction shows that literature participates in this dynamic and promotes an understanding of literature as a medium rather than an art form. The chapter argues that literary studies will produce more complex accounts of literary history if it reconceptualizes the dynamics of literary experimentation and innovation from a comparative media perspective. The introduction also outlines the book’s chapters.